The Formula for Virtual Trust in the Golden Age of Contingent Work

Emily Crookston
March 28, 2017
As the nature of work and the concept of employment continue to evolve, the business landscape must change to accommodate the new virtual workforce. Without a doubt, digital technology is changing how businesses organize, survive, and thrive. It is not uncommon today for a CEO to hire an individual halfway around the globe to head a new office without ever meeting her in person. It is normal for coworkers to live in different time zones. And the picture of an office in Scranton, PA full of people sitting in cubicles nine-to-five, Monday–Friday is quickly becoming obsolete (queue the Michael Scott clips). While many ways of doing business have changed, the foundation of strong business relationships remains constant. Trust has always been foundational to business relationships. But many professionals are wondering what trust means in the golden age of contingent work.

Trust Evolves

Conducting business with other human beings inevitably involves risk. Each time you hire someone new, decide to work with a new client, or use a new supplier, there is risk involved. Creating a strong business relationship requires both partners to establish enough trust to rationalize the risk. In the past, businessmen (yes, men is intentional) established trust by looking each other straight in the eye and closing deals with a firm handshake. Those days are all but gone now. Still, it’s worth exploring how this type of physical interaction became a hallmark of trust in business, and how we might apply it to the new virtual workforce.

Trust Is a Gut Feeling

According to one trust formula, trust consists of credibility, reliability, and intimacy. However, your self-orientation, i.e., how much you prioritize your own situation over that of others, is the denominator that can undermine “high scores” in the other elements. When we interact with others, we get a sense of whether they are being genuine. If we even get a whiff of what we perceive as selfish behavior, trust vanishes. The only trouble is that we tend to believe we are better at reading others than we actually are. Looking into someone’s eyes and shaking his hand may actually do us a disservice. In some cases, at least, the distance and objectivity technology offers may help us to focus on information that more accurately speaks to an individual’s credibility and reliability.

Virtual Trust Complements Physical Interaction

While virtual trust does have advantages, some things do get lost in translation over virtual communication. Technology often makes it harder for people to be totally present with each other (see: conference call in real life parody video). When people use Skype, for example, it’s easy to miss nonverbal cues, and technological glitches can be a source of additional stress. Where does this disadvantage leave trust when it comes to the virtual workforce? While virtual channels are unlikely to completely replace face-to-face interaction any time soon, with the right tools, processes, and cultural cues, these digital alternatives can complement physical work.

A New Formula for Virtual Trust

Credibility and intimacy are most sensitive to the evolution of business in the age of contingent work. However, it is possible to facilitate and encourage these aspects of trust in your virtual workforce.

Endorsement = Credibility

Many companies rely on endorsement by a mutually trusted source to fill in any credibility gaps left by doing business virtually. Finding a reliable source to vouch for someone you are considering for a virtual position does wonders for her credibility and for your peace of mind. On-demand workforce management systems can play the role of endorser for corporations. When you hire an expert from a talent marketplace, you know that you are hiring a professional who has gone through an extensive vetting process and has the credentials to do the job.

Open Communication = Intimacy

Scheduling 30-minute virtual team meetings once per week can help remote employees become familiar with each other and create open lines of communication. Regular phone or online meetings can mimic elements of face-to-face meetings around the conference table. Engaging in small talk prior to the start of meetings and collaborating via internal messaging systems like Slack can help establish intimacy among peers. Facilitating trust among employees is often as important to business success as facilitating trust between leadership and employees. Establishing intimacy among employees who only have virtual contact is definitely a challenge. But with a little extra effort and a slight cultural shift, you can create a digital environment with nearly all the same elements of trust as a physical office environment. Just as the ways of doing business have evolved over time, the formula of trust has kept pace with these changes. Catalant has been helping businesses like yours evolve and take advantage of the increasing talent available in the virtual workforce. See how we can help you find the formula for virtual trust that best suits your business. Click on the banner to download our whitepaper on winning with a flexible workforce.  Whitepaper graphic
Featured in: Workforce Flexibility

About the Author

Emily Crookston

Emily Crookston is the owner of the Pocket PhD ( and a contributing writer to the Catalant Technologies blog. She is a copywriter, former professor, and pocket resource for your business. When she’s not writing intensely, she’s most likely practicing yoga intensely.

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